Day of reckoning for Easter virus spike
Caravan convoys making their way along back roads in the dead of night. Busy - but remote - regional beaches. Loud house parties in quiet suburbs. So … how long before we know what you did last Easter?
The message was loud and simple: Stay at home.
Sure, it goes against the grain. The Easter long weekend is a rare opportunity for office workers to hit the road. Not so much those in retail and hospitality, who usually get to work most of it.
Favourite camping grounds. Best beach houses. Maybe great fishing spots. Many have become the focus of long-held family traditions.
This time was different.
With the state of the COVID-19 pandemic still uncertain across Australia, authorities were desperate to avoid a potential disaster.
Ministers. Medicos. Police. All took to the airwaves to warn us of the danger of letting down our physical distancing guard for the sake of a spot of sun.
As Easter Monday rolled by, police reported most people had - generally - been well-behaved. An inevitable few had been caught disregarding the safety of others. But country and regional anecdotes suggest more than a few had slipped the net.
So how long before we find out if enough people listened to prevent a COVID-19 spike?
AN EASTER OF FEAR
One needs only look at the University of Sydney's NSW Case and Community Profile map to see the big blob of COVID-19 cases clustered around Bondi Beach.
All it took was a carefree attitude and the desire for a bit of fun. And a popular destination.
Easter is also a time of religious significance. Several US churches openly defied orders to close their doors, for example, though most took the welfare of their congregations to heart.
"Iran also had difficulties in stopping people congregating close together in a number of holy sites," notes ANU infectious disease expert Dr Sanjaya Senanayake. "And don't forget the Christian group in Korea. So the issue of religious noncompliance with social distancing seems to involve various religions in various countries."
It's not as though we weren't warned.
"The biggest risk with COVID-19 infection is community transmission. Practising social distancing is working, which is why it's important for everyone to stay home over Easter," the NSW Government cautioned.
"This is not a normal Easter. Travelling, visiting friends, heading to the beach, or staying in regional Victoria could see all our hard-won gains evaporate," was the Victorian Government's message.
"We've all worked really hard to slow the spread, and that progress could be completely undone if we go out this Easter," said Queensland Health.
Western Australia went in hard: "Police have the power to enforce these restrictions, and issue fines of up to $50,000."
So, when will we find out if enough people listened?
BY THE NUMBERS
We know it takes an average of five to six days before COVID-19 incubates enough inside a body to generate symptoms. This can often be up to 14 days, however.
But, as Australian epidemiologists warn, nothing is ever simple about pandemics. Especially when human behaviour gets added to the equation.
"I think it will be longer than a week," La Trobe University infectious disease modeller Dr Joel Miller said. "It takes about a week for people to feel a bit sick, but longer before they seek treatment. In Italy, it took two weeks after their shutdown began before there was clear evidence that their new infection rate had fallen."
UNSW biosecurity expert Professor Raina MacIntyre agreed.
"We generally see the impact of key events or disease control efforts within one to two incubation periods, so two to four weeks."
Which is why any new spike in numbers this week could be attributed to asymptomatic or undetected transmissions coming from released Ruby Princess passengers, she noted.
"If Easter resulted in lapses in social distancing, mass gatherings and transmission of infection, we would see the impact between April 23 and May 7."
All up, it's going to be some time yet before we find out how well Australia behaved.
"I would hesitate to judge what happened over Easter until late next week, and compare whether we start to see increased growth then," Dr Miller said.
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OUT OF THE ORDINARY
Dr Miller said another problem must be factored into Easter reporting. There's a well-established pattern of problematic numbers coming out of weekends and public holidays.
"All the data I've looked at shows effects from weekends - US and Italy, in particular, we can see it," he said.
That's because many of those who conduct or process the tests can themselves be on a break. And sufferers tend not to seek help at these times.
The same applies to hospital reporting of new admissions - and deaths.
"I think that is a result of fewer people processing the data over the weekend, so it takes longer to get into the reports," Dr Miller said. "It's closest to being a 'statistical glitch'. Reporting the deaths on a given day isn't quite the same as reporting that the deaths happened on that day."
Many factors influence reporting.
It can be the availability of tests and testers. It can be the number of people willing to self-report.
So, will Easter holiday-makers be unwilling to incriminate themselves if they fall sick?
Dr Senanayake doesn't think so.
"I don't necessarily think it will lead to people not getting tested, as sick people will be scared for their own sake and their family's," he said. "However, if they test positive, they may not be so forthcoming about how they caught it."
And contact tracing - identifying a network of viral transmission - is necessary for the prompt isolation of all involved to arrest its spread.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as Day of reckoning for Easter virus spike